I Left Academia to Work in a Pub Because I’m Working-Class

When you grow up working-class you learn quickly that the majority of middle-class society has nothing but contempt for you. Usually, it comes from your first experiences within education, or a social worker or the police. But then you get to go home to a community of working-class people who surround themselves with people in similar situations. You pop around to your friends’ flats and see their mother sticking her hand down the sofa desperately trying to find some change for a pint of milk – and you don’t feel ashamed of your own parents’ financial hardships. This is not a romanticisation of working-class life. Working-class communities have been devastated from years of global economic restructuring. Quite often, like my own childhood, trauma is embedded within these communities because of: substance abuse, mental health, criminal activity – whilst not unique to the working-class the stigma attached to it will fall more heavily upon them. However, the most terrifying thing is not what’s happening at home, it’s the experience of leaving that community and engaging with people who only have disdain for working-class people. No more is this evident than when attempting to enter the world of traditional middle-class professions.

I never planned to go into academia. It was a sequence of events that led onto me being awarded a PhD scholarship. The opportunity to study a topic I was deeply interested in, to be paid to learn for another three years, was mind blowing to me and I snatched it up. However, I realised very soon into the programme that doing a PhD wasn’t simply about producing a piece of research, it was about becoming an academic. At first, I kept my family background concealed. Friends told me if my peers ever found out what type of family I really came from: drugs, abuse, crime, homelessness, domestic violence, mental health, children’s homes, they would never let me in. And of course, they were right. So, for a long time I attempted to embody everything an academic should be in the eyes of the middle-class academy. I refused to even say I was working-class, I kept quiet in meetings in case I made pronunciation mistakes, and so that people didn’t hear my accent, and I didn’t swear for years. I changed the way I dressed. I did every administrative and menial task assigned to me. Every free labour activity that I was told would look good on my CV when I apply for an academic job. But I did this also as a form of trying to make academia more accessible for people like myself. For years I gave and gave to the academic world in the hope of becoming a part of it. The more I did the more I started to get noticed and you can never really hide who you are so the cracks started showing because just walking into a room they knew straight away that I was working-class – because we know the working-classes smell.

Away from my post-92 university and plunged into a world of privately educated colleagues from generations of academics and I stuck out like a sore thumb. The more I did, the more contempt I encountered. It was the small things at first that get to you: the sniggering at your incorrect pronunciation of a French social theorist. The scorning looks across the table when you start speaking, the continuous questioning of what your parents’ do (they’re both dead) or repeated asking where you’re from, what school you went to? And once they’ve worked out that you’re not one of them the singling out intensified. You start to get openly criticised for anything you’re associated with: events, presentations, publications. I was subjected to some of the most severe open public criticism that no middle-class PhD student or early career researcher would have ever have been. But of course, this is never done to your face. Instead, academics use the wonders of academic online forum platforms in which working-class academics can find they have been subjected to a hot debated berating sometimes lasting several days and consisting of hundreds of threads. Of course, there is the classic passive aggressive favourite of the academic – the subtweet. Should you ever react, you will be branded ‘aggressive’. Because simply being working-class means these academics find you antagonistic whether you engage with them or not. They wear you down, destroy your reputation until finally you can’t take it anymore and return to where you came from or you snap back and then they can self-congratulate each other for exposing you for the working-class thug they always defined you as. And should you dare to try to hold down a job within academia – no matter how low paid and precarious – the middle-class academic will do everything within their power to make you lose it, because no matter how mediocre and talentless they are their sense of entitlement to occupy academia is something no working-class person has ever witnessed within their own community. Because for the middle-class academic, their whole life has been leading towards the pursuit of a high-status position within the academy. As soon as they’re born the utilisation and accumulation of educational resources and cultural capital begins by their parents in order to safeguard their children’s interest in professions which are becoming increasingly precarious. For the middle-class academic walking into the post seminar wine reception all efforts of their parents come into fruition: their summer holiday touring European art galleries and museums, their extra French tuition lessons after school, the wine they were allowed to drink at the family dinner table when they were 15 years old, the copy of Das Kapital on the book self, their political activism within the union and so and so forth. They have been moulded to fit perfectly into the middle-class professional world. And so, they continue this cycle of strategic career planning and networking. Every move within the academy is calculated, intentionally planned as to advantage their own career at the expense of those they believe don’t belong, in the fear that the working-class academic might take a place that was meant for them. Every ‘friendship network’ talk they attend, papers they write, even down to what they choose to research. And what and who they choose to distance themselves from or publicly attack. They play their career out like a chess board and the working-class academic is simply a pawn to eliminate.

I now work in a pub and can honestly say I’m happier for it. The hours are long, the pay isn’t brilliant, I have broken up fights, dodged flying glasses, had drunk people screaming in my face – but none of that has ever felt as violent as having privileged academics criticise your choice of wine at an event or tell you that you should go back to school to learn French and learn how to talk properly.

People ask me whether I’m really working-class anymore – can you still be working-class and have a PhD? I know my education has given me many advantages that others I’ve grown up don’t have. I know despite working in a pub I could leave at any moment and find a high-level job. I know that having a PhD has meant I could research the pub and write about it, benefiting me if I choose to attempt to go back into academia. I know I’m luckier than most. But I also know that my working-class background made me a target for an establishment built on status, social reproduction and social closure. Although I know this, I often wonder why does academia find working-class academics such a threat? I ponder whether the contempt for working-class people is so deeply rooted these academics don’t even realise what they are doing? We make an ideal research topic proposal for a new funding bid, but they don’t really want to have someone like us in their world. And to be truthful I no longer want be part of it. Yes, academia needs working-class people, but do working-class people really need academia?

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